NEWTON'S PRISM: LAYER PAINTING: 6-28 February 2003
Public opening and reception: Thursday 6 February at 3 PM.
Talk by Doug Lewis Wednesday 12 February at NOON.
Talk by Eric Cameron Thursday 13 February at NOON.
Talk by Cliff Eyland Wednesday 26 February at 7 PM.
Curated by Cliff Eyland.PAUL HESS
Above: A painting by Paul Hess. The artist's description: "Red Oxide. Date: Fall 1976. 12 inches square acrylic on stretched canvas with frame. Small thick canvas with frame pre-built (depth of frame equaled the length of bristles on brush), then a full container of paint applied in successive brushstrokes. Frame stopped the travel of the brush at either end. A massive little thing. Very heavy build up on edges." Below: a detail of Red Oxide.
The following interview with Paul Hess was conducted through an exchange of e-mails in January 2003. Hess was one of the artists who began layer painting in the mid-1970s at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Cliff Eyland: Could you tell me about how your work fit into the circle of "layer painters" at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in the mid-1970s? Mary Scott has told me that you were an important player then...
Paul Hess: Well, I arrived in Halifax at the end of the summer of 1976. My introduction to what was happening was an exhibition of Eric Fischl's carved encaustic fish in his storefront studio, some with poems lettered on the surface. Amazing work. I enrolled a class called Art Now (this sounds funny as I say it in 2003.) Early on, we went to Garry [Neill Kennedy] and Jerry's [Gerald Ferguson's] studio to look at paintings and Garry handed out a one page typed sheet of paper with an explanation of what he was doing. I had never seen anyone do that before. Never mind discuss what he wrote. So, in the space of one month I experienced the extremes of the place. At the center of both there appeared to be a common interest reflected in the quality of the Maritimes. I have yet to experience anything like it elsewhere in Canada. This is not easy to put into words. Perhaps something of the Atlantic, the coast and the rawness of being there. It inspired everyone and everything I saw in the first months. People were using traditional materials in a very different way, or they were working with things that had nothing to do with what I had seen or used myself. Am I off topic?
Garry was painting square monochromes. Jerry was in the same studio at NSCAD and, though he was not in on the session, we had to walk around his stuff and sit wherever, so you noticed what was there. Lots of stencils and tests. They were very busy boys, the place was chock full.
Because I had just arrived and was soaking everything up I was very sensitive to what was going on in everybody's studio. I think what happened was that I synthesized everything very quickly and began to work in a way that put some things together with what I had been working on before arriving, work that I was doing in video and photo prints. Namely, repetitive tasks or looping behaviors that would open up the action for a viewer to examine a bit more closely. I think what happened was that I managed to translate the time-based work into a static painting activity that could be prescribed by the paint materials I chose the personal act of painting at an easel. The work that came out of my studio that fall was rich with the ideas of process and material but I felt then and see in the work today a strong desire to have it be a reflection of my experience. Somehow wanting it to connect to things about myself and outside of the region.
Taking conceptual strategies at face value and making them become a means of recording human activity -- this was a vivid lesson I took from Conceptual Art and brought to Halifax. The deadpan aspect of Conceptual Art on its own terms was an unfamiliar response. I had much more of an interest in Vito Acconci, in his emotional discharges, than in some of the drier versions of conceptualism. The other aspect that seemed connected to this work was an interest in language. Language was an interesting phenomenon at the time. Before I got to Halifax, I took a class with the chair of the department at Guelph, Tom Tritschler, who also taught me contemporary photography history. For him, language and the descriptions of experience were paramount. In his seminar he attempted to transfer this particular interest to us. I got it and it opened up a very poetic quality for me but I also know he mystified a lot of other students. At NSCAD it became clear why this mattered. That by choosing certain ways of naming and describing, why you picked up certain materials and what you did with them, counted in very precise terms. The way you made those decisions and what they meant really counted. Every one made different choices and so the work became one's own, even under what must have seemed a heavy cloud of influence. Clearly it was important to break with something, even if you wanted to continue.
At first I realized that the work I was making differed by virtue of this and because of the intensity of the place I wondered whether this was going to be a problem. I then saw an exhibition of Tim Zuck paintings, small square oil paintings of flat color, with strange little images lifted from the locale and set down into the thick layer of paint. Here was that Maritime thing repeating itself again in what I thought was very interesting work. After seeing Tim's show, I knew that it was ok to be moving towards my own experience. The key aspects for me in painting became consistency and repetition, in order to slowly tease out the nuances and imperfections that naturally occurred in the work. This could only be observed if the work carried on for an extended length of time.
So, to get to your question, I think that "layering" in painting was happening in some of the very few paintings being made at the time, but was an important idea that everyone was playing with as a symptom of process. It seemed there was a constant discussion about materials and process. Garry and Jerry were watching what I was doing and so was Eric Cameron, who was not, as far as I know, working on paintings at the time. Jeff Spalding was not at the school then, but a few of his "black" layer paintings were in the grad studio and I saw them. They reminded me of Ad Reinhardt's work. Their scale and physicality connected them to earlier New York painting. In Halifax at the time, work that fit into this new description was actually quite small and that did signal a separation from some of the issues of Modernist painting.
One year later Mary Scott arrived from Calgary and began to make paintings by squeezing words out of a syringe on to acrylic sheets! The strangeness of Halifax never stopped happening!
C.E.: Could you talk more generally about "process painting"?
P.H.: I was exposed to a huge amount of American painting before arriving in Halifax and had read almost everything that had been published on Conceptual Art. To me before NSCAD, Process painting meant everything that occurred after DADA art though Jackson Pollock right up to Robert Ryman. But in the mid-1970's and certainly in Halifax, it was more a question of taking the act of painting as it had been universally mythologized by American critics and painters and stripping it clean, just like a pine flat-to-wall cupboard. We needed to see the grain of the wood and the jointery. It was a post-Greenbergian Modernist strategy to move painting forward. The problem was that something not quite necessary seemed still attached to painting. Perhaps it was the too self-conscious historical lineage of painting. One very clear and threatening notion was that the history of painting was like an unbroken chain. This unfortunate concept fueled many discussions that focused on what to do. Until you could see that it was more a cluster of events, that it only sometimes had connectiveness, but mostly not, it was difficult to let go of that history thing. In retrospect, the time seemed to be a defining moment for many artists who were arriving at the College to teach or study. NSCAD may have unwittingly provided just the right kind of environment for each one of us to able to set aside the need to cling to that knowledge in order to figure out what to do.
Process became a subject for the work. There was a strong emphasis on each element in a work, how you made the piece, what was what and how you saw it. Somewhat of a semantic game. This even allowed you to consider other historical kinds of painting.
Then, at a certain point, perhaps if just for a short time, the subject left the painting and that seemed to be another way of defining the period and one's curiosity about process. It is very difficult to keep a subject out of a painting. I think that "process painting" was that brief moment. Because the subject very quickly began to reappear in painting, for artists in Halifax and elsewhere. When it did, the process aspect of the work became subsumed into the work, less talked about, and one might assume, perhaps inaccurately, less of an issue.
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